The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 5)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: a Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

In this series of blog posts, I’m tracing the Western Esoteric traditions through history, with special attention paid to the contribution of these traditions to the work of Carl Jung.

By the 16th century, the distinction between Ficino’s natural magic and demonic magic starts to blur. 

First stop, is the German humanist Johannes Reuchlin, who builds on Ficino’s magic and Pico’s work with the Kabbalah.  Now the power of words, figures, secret rites, and holy names comes to the fore and teachings in Hebrew become justified in the Christian community. 

Next up, is monastic abbot, Johannes Trithemius, who was a follower of Reuchlin and his work. Now, Christian humanists turned their attention to angelic magic, and Trithemius gives precise instructions on how to summon angels to gain knowledge from them as well as use them to send long distance messages.[1]  His 3 book treatise, Steganograhia, dealt with progressively more powerful spirits demonstrating how they are invoked by prayer, incantation, and precision timing:

  1. in his first book, he warns about the dangers of dealing with the spirits of air because they are both arrogant and rebellious,
  2. in his second book, he enumerates the spirits governing each hour and day,
  3. in his third book he connects all of the Angels and spirits with the seven (visible) planets.

Trithemius also dabbled in prediction and prohecy. His message was that each progressive age (measured in Platonic months of 2480 terrestrial years each with reference to the procession of the equinoxes through the 12 Zodiac signs), would be governed by a particular angel. Knowing his angels, as he did, this allowed him to envisage major currents in political and religious change throughout human history. His underlying thesis was that God, as the first intellect, had delegated these various angelic governors to oversee these fixed periods.

As far as history was concerned, Trithemius was unfortunate. In the end, his notoriety became confused with the legend of Doctor Faustus, which became world famous through the 17th century play (of the same name) by Christopher Marlowe.

Enter Henry Cornelius Agrippa, born in Cologne in 1486, who ushers in the 2nd Golden Age of Hermetic and Christian Kabbalistic practice. Not only does he spread the word through his travels and teachings, but having finally settled in Northern Italy, he is involved with the translation of more ancient works that become accepted into mainstream Christian thought and practice. In his mind, this was only right, convinced as he was that these writings would bring men back from intellectual pride and despair into humble acknowledgement of God’s goodness. The benefit of this approach is clear: with such mastery and revelation, men would regain the upper hand over nature, which had been lost with the antics of Adam in the Garden of Eden.

As Dr Liz Greene points out, Jung was familiar with Agrippa’s work on angels and it did influence his work with Philemon, his ‘daimon’, in Liber Novus. In this, Jung took the view from Jewish magic that ‘guardian angels’ could be pretty much the same thing as one’s daimon, which could be determined from one’s natal or birth chart.[2] This conclusion, however, was harder for him to reach than one might think, given that, as Dr Greene notes, guardian angels are usually understood to be ontologically separate from the human soul. The idea that one’s guardian angel may also be found within is on the fringe, although it is found in the work of Agrippa, where it was demonstrated that through appropriate theurgy (in keeping with the mundus imaginalis of Iamblichus) one is able to invoke his or her angelic ‘higher Self’.

Unfortunately for Agrippa, he (along with other adherents of this 2nd Golden Age) gets caught out in the crossfire of the Reformation, wherein with the new Protestant ideal, the focus is now on the frailty of man and no longer on his confident, hubristic Neoplatonist magic. Nonetheless, Agrippa’s legacy lives on, which leads us to the next link in the chain, England’s John Dee and Edward Kelly.

As advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee enjoyed support and great freedom. Hence, he was a major intellectual force in Elizabethan England. This makes perfect sense. He possessed a library of over 2,500 printed books and 170 manuscripts including the complete works of Marsilio Ficino an edition of the Corpus Hermeticm. As a result, there is no doubt  he was well versed in the current state of the hermetic and kabbalistic arts. Yet as his own major work, Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558), made clear is real interest lay Arabic and mediaeval Oxford natural science, suggesting as he did that the celestial influence on the everyday lives of men on earth was direct cause and effect rather than sympathetic.  “Whatever exists in actuality spherically projects into each part of the world rays, which fill up the universe to its limit.” 

Overtime , however, hermetic and kabbalistic thought did leave its mark on his work, most famously in Monas (1564) which scholar, Frances Yates, suggests was really a type of magical amulet infused with astrological power, its purpose to bring the human psyche into unity. It’s important to note that other scholars offer a similarly interesting yet competing analyses of that work. 

That his personal library included work by Johannes Trithemius about spiritual (angelic) planetary governors as noted above, did suggest that he was interested in Angel magic . But because he lacked the clairvoyant gifts, he needed intermediaries hence entered, Edward Kelly, a talented medium who most certainly had a reputation for walking on the dark side. There is evidence that the believed that the noises come of voices, operations, and even dreams that he had during the period of working with Kelly were indeed the good Angels bearing genuine messages from God. He felt confident in this given that his experience tallied with those recorded by Agrippa. Reuchlin, and Trithemius.

Interestingly, although the stigma of being a conjurer finally did stick to Dee, there’s little evidence that either he or Kelly attempted to command the angels with whom they were in contact, to do their personal bidding. Although there is plenty of evidence that Dee was much more interested in learning the secrets of creation through his angelic encounters than in obtaining spiritual illumination. This does, then, leave a suggestion that like Kelly, Dee had been drawn to the darker end of the occult spectrum.

(to be continued)

[1] The word angel is derived from the Greek aggelos, or ‘one going’ or ‘one sent’, a ‘messenger’. Aggelos is sometimes used in translation for the Hebrew mal’akh, or ‘messenger’. Biblical applications of the word, both in Hebrew and Greek, refer to certain heavenly intelligences. Whom God employs in the office of messengers to carry out his will amongst humanity. Not surprisingly, the Christian conception of angels stems from much earlier Jewish ideas of God enthroned in a celestial palace, with various coming and goings on heavenly journeys with chariots. For more, see, Angelomorphism and Magical Transformation in the Christian and Jewish Traditions by Alison Greig (pp 129-144); in Culture and Cosmos: A Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy, papers from the 2013 Sophia Centre conference, special double issue on Celestial Magic, vol. 19 , Number 1 and 2, Spring/ Summer and Autumn/Winter 2015

[2] Green, Liz; Jung’s Studies in Astrology: Prophecy, Magic, and the Qualities of Time. London: Routledge (2018), pp.104-105.

Art & Cognition: False Images in the Poetry of Spenser and Sidney

UnknownSidney and Spenser both suggest the purpose of poetry is to ‘delight’ and ‘teach’ using ‘speaking pictures’ in line with the Horatian tradition of ut pictura poesis – ‘as is painting so is poetry’. According to Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy, (ll. 219-22) this is to be achieved through mimesis which entails the process of imitating – with a view to perfecting – nature.

Neuropsychologist Merlin Donald suggests that mimesis works because it has played a crucial role in human cognitive evolution, serving as the primary means of representing reality prior to the emergence of language and symbolic thought. According to Donald, mimesisrefers to intentional means of representing reality utilising vocal tone, facial expression, bodily movement, manual gestures, and other non-linguistic means. This is fundamentally different from both mimicry and imitation because mimesis adds a new dimension: it ‘re-enact[s] and re-present[s] an event or relationship’ in a nonliteral yet clearly intelligible way (Kamhi).

So why do we delight in mimetic representations? Kamhi suggests because they are not real; they are carefully crafted representations of reality which require our contemplation. Out of countless possible attributes, actions, and entities, an artist or poet isolates those which he or she deems essential to his or her purpose and integrates them through mimesis into a new, embodied image (Rand, 45). It is in this new image that we take such pleasure in understanding.

During the English reformation ‘images’ were especially suspect. They were seen as impersonators, their deceptiveness offering nothing more than a temptation to idolatry and damnation (Tassi, 24). Both Spenser and Sidney were well aware of this and perhaps they conjured up the ‘false images’ in their own poetry with a view to teaching readers about this very danger. For sure much of Sidney’s Defense of Poesy is given over to justification of why ‘feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else’ (ll. 281-82) is such a noble cause. Likewise, in his letter of intention to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser defensively notes that he was also aware of the dangers of allegory although he had just created (a long) one.

My essay compares and contrasts the representation of what I consider to be several key ‘false images’ in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (‘FQ’) and Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (‘AS’). My goal is to pinpoint patterns in regards to non-linguistic representations in order to better understand how Early Modern poetry attempted to delight and teach through mimesis (as framed by Merlin Donald). In this regard, it matters not what they say but how they say it.

Arguably the most important false image in FQ is Archimago who specialises in conjuring up his own false images to confuse and manipulate (Tonkin, 63). Given Spenser’s concern about false imagery, it is not surprising that Archimago (also representing the original False Poet (id)) is responsible for pretty much all that goes wrong. Along with Redcross and Una, we first meet Archimago on the road (I i 29). It seems a safe enough place – a well-beaten path (which without narratorial comment we could not realise leads precariously one-way) situated on an open ‘plaine’ (having just experienced the dangers of the dark, forest we can appreciate the ability to see for miles around). He is ‘aged’, barefooted, and his eyes are ‘lowly bent’ to the ground. He often ‘knockt’ his breast and ‘saluted’ bowing ‘low’. Archimago appears humble, harmless enough.

Little wonder that the tired travellers accept his offer to stay overnight in his ‘litle lowly Hermitage’. The humble, harmless man seems so much that which we would like him be that along with the tired travellers, we may be forgiven for ignoring that his home lays ‘hard by a forests side’. Is it not with a prick of concern – if not fear – that we encounter the cold, dark, damp forest? Did we not fail to heed Una’s earlier warning that ‘danger hid, the place vnknowne and wilde’ (I i 12.3)? Yet we are tired. The ‘lowly Hermitage’ lays next to a ‘holy chappell edifyde’. Even though ‘oft fire is without smoke’ (I i 12..4), this is reassuring enough – perhaps so much so that we also fail to question the ‘pleasing wordes’ that humble, harmless ‘olde man’ had in ‘store’ with a voice ‘as smooth’ as glas’? Surely everyone with any experience of glass knows how dangerous, slippery it can be (I i 35.10-11)?

In regards to AS, we must search harder for non-linguistic clues for our narrator, Astrophil, appears more preoccupied with words than mimetics (al la Merlin Donald). He opens with an internal debate on how to make words ‘show’ his ‘love’ for Stella. Shall he study ‘inventions fine, her wits to entertain’ or should he just ‘look in (his) heart and write’? Yet if visual ‘images’ are suspect then what about words? Are they not ‘false’, deceiving ‘images’ as well? In Sonnet 35, Astrophil addresses this directly asking ‘what may words say, or what may words not say,/Where truth itself must speak like flattery?’ What is the relationship between images and truth and flattery? If visual and verbal ‘images’ are equally dangerous, is there nothing that can accurately represent truth? Because during this period sonnets were a popular form to strongly emote (perhaps overemote) over some desired and/or detested object (Spiller, 124), we have reason to suspect Astrophil is going to find out the hard way.

In the first stanza of AS, Astrophil declares his love in ‘truth’ but is ‘fain’ (gladly willing (OED adv B) and also perhaps a pun on ‘feign’ suggesting deceit, (OED n)) in ‘verse to show’.His ‘words’ come ‘halting forth, wanting invention’s stay’. In this sense ‘invention suggests a contrivance or device crafted through ingenuity (OED n, 9). Is Astrophil suggesting that his words are as contrived and deceiving as – perhaps – Archimago’s ‘pleasing wordes’? If so, then as readers might this realisation make our brains as ‘sunburnt’ as Astrophil’s? Reaching for our aspirin, at least we may take solace that we now have seized upon a good non-linguistic clue.

The (unnamed) narrator in FQ seems equally aware of problems with expressing truth. In the opening line of his prologue to the entire poem, he advises that whilst his ‘Muse’ did previously ‘maske’ his abilities (i.e. hide his true form and character behind an outward show, OED v 4), he is now ready for a ‘farre vnfitter taske’ which is nothing less than to write an epic poem (he must imitate the opening lines of Renaissance editions of Virgil’s Aeneid for a reason) which is also a Romance (‘sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds’(I.5)). Might we as readers be forgiven for wondering just how he might achieve such a complex objective in a single go? What if his ‘Muse’ is as deceitful as Duessa (after all, his muse is also a woman)? According to Dees (537), throughout the entire poem the words of our narrator are frequently oversimplified, contradictory, and misleading. While Dees suggests this might be because they were written in a less sophisticated age than our own, I suggest that it is more likely to have occurred by design. As our narrator moralises and explains his way through the poem, might we be well reminded of Archimago – who could also ‘well file his tongue as smooth as glas’ (I i 35.7)? It matters not what they say but how they say it.

Meanwhile while Archimago is in hot pursuit of Una, whom Redcross has abandoned thanks to Archimago’s ‘false images’, Redcross meets Duessa (I ii 13). She is well-dressed (perhaps too well-dressed) and her manner is one of ‘faire disport’ suggesting the making of merriment and fun (OED n 3). Yet if Redcross had been able or willing to see more clearly, he must surely have wondered how Duessa could have been so merry with her champion one moment and then run away from him ‘with all her powre’ the next moment when he should ‘fall’ (I ii 20.1-4). But her ‘melting in teares’ (I ii 22.1) and ‘ruefull countenaunce’ (I ii 21.1) manages to convince Redcross to accept her tale of ‘fortune false’ (I ii 22.4).

In stanza five of AS, Astrophil reminds us that ‘it is most true, that eyes are formed to serve/The inward light;’ and that if we swerve from seeing thus, we are ‘Rebels to Nature’. Perhaps he is suggesting that only in nature is truth to be found and that – by analogy – mimesis (represented nature) causes us to miss the truth? Or perhaps he is suggesting that we should elevate the ‘light of reason above our more primative senses? If so, then is mimesis not dangerous for no other reason than because it does not operate in the ‘light’ of reason? In any event, although Astrophil uses the word ‘true’ seven times in this stanza, all he can see is the (irrational) ‘truth’ that ‘I must Stella love.’

We hope that Astrophil will do better with Stella than we suspect will Redcross with Duessa. But when in stanza seven we learn that Stella’s eyes are ‘black’ (highly unusual for English women of the period), we have renewed reason to be concerned. Astrophil’s reference to a painter here is also suggestive of the dangers of representation and we are given further cause for concern when we learn that Stella’s eyes (if ‘no veil those brave gleams did disguise’), ‘sun-like, should more dazzle than delight’. In dazzling sunlight, most would instinctively turn away. Perhaps it is due to his ‘sunburnt’ brain (or the false flattery of anticipate ‘delight’) that Astrophil fails to do the same?

Redcross also has an encounter with dazzling sunlight when ‘golden Phoebus now ymounted hie’ made the road he travels with Duessa ‘so scorching cruell hot’ (I ii 29.3-5). His ‘new Lady’ cannot endure the heat and so they find shady spot whence they are ‘entertained’ by Fradubio’s story of how his association with Duessa ended with his being turned into a tree. Perhaps the brain of Redcross is also ‘sunburnt’ for although Duessa, fearing discovery, faints, he ‘oft her kist’ until she made a full recovery.

Despite being yet again dazzled by Una (unveiled, the ‘blazing brightnesse’ and ‘glorious light’ of her ‘sunshyny face’), Redcross finally manages to see something for it is and marries Una, his heroine. Not surprisingly, after this momentous occasion all goes well for him. Perhaps his aspirin finally took hold? Sadly, Astrophil’s does not. Although his narrative also ends with allusions to sunlight – ‘Phoebus gold’ – it is only to curse it because ‘O absent presence, Stella is not here’ (although he still cannot see that in reality she never really was and that what ‘told’st mine eyes’ was only his own ‘false flattering hope’).

In conclusion, by comparing and contrasting the representations of key false images I suggest we can pinpoint a pattern of carefully crafted non-linguistic images depicting inconsistencies and overreactions that act as signals or clues. Although each inconsistency and overreaction is small, isolated, seemingly harmless enough – taken together they add up to big trouble (‘oft fire is without smoke’): (1) Duessa’s behaviour in regards to her fallen champion, (2) the ‘pleasing wordes’ of a humble, harmless man whose ‘voice was ‘as smooth’ as glas’, (3) the unusual ‘black eyes’ of a woman in conjunction with reference to a painter, (4) for no apparent reason, Duessa faints after Fradubio’s story, and (5) Astrophil’s ‘sunburnt’ brain resulting from mental masturbations over a women we suspect he does not even know (Spiller, 125). I suggest these ‘false images’ serve to demonstrate to readers how difficult will be their task to not be taken in by ‘false images’ – all the more dangerous because such images can be so easily ‘explained away’ with equally dangerous false, flattering, and deceptive ‘words’.





Sidney, Sir Philip. The Major Works including Astrophil and Stella. ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. ed. AC Hamilton and Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007.


Bae, Kyung Jin. ‘What May Words Not Say’: Language and Silence in Astrophil and Stella. Journal of English and American Studies (vol. 2, December 2003) (14 May 2014).


Dees, Jerome S. “The Narrator of The Faerie Queene: Patterns of Response”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter 1971), pp. 537-568.


Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Halliwell, Stephen. Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.


Kamhi, Michelle Marder. ‘Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Gard.’ Aristos: an Online Review of the Arts. (14 May 2014).


Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto: a Philosophy of Literature. New York: New American Library, 1975.


Spiller, Michael. Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. Florence: Routledge (1992). May 2014).


Tassi, Marguerite A. The Scandal of Images: Iconoclasm, Eroticism, and Painting in Early Modern English Drama. Selingsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2005.


Tonkin, Humphrey. The Faeire Queene. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

A Storyteller’s Inadequacy

Unknown-1On Friday, a friend and I went to see Eva Kotátková’s A Storyteller’s Inadequacy at Modern Art Oxford.

Because we’re both writers, we were a bit nervous that as storytellers we might be shown to be inadequate.

It would appear however, that Ms Kotátková’s exhibition wasn’t so much about storytellers (or even storytelling) as it is about mankind’s arduous everyday struggle with words and ideas.

Now I fully realise that ‘words’ can be inadequate to convey ideas. As a product of postmodernity, I know what ‘I’ write or say may not have any meaningful connection to what ‘you’ read or hear.

Further, I get the point that ‘idea’s can be prisons when transformed into theories, rules, and codes with which we – as social animals – are expected to conform (pretty much) without question.

I even get the esoteric implications of God creating the universe through ‘words’ in accordance with the blueprint of his ‘idea’ (‘In the beginning was the Word’ – John 1.1) and as humans we got the short end of the stick because according to Gnostic teachings, the demiurge created the material world to be a prison.

But quite what this all has to do with storytellers and the inadequacies we may have – I remain at a loss.

Perhaps someone might enlighten me?



Faces Within Faces – Revealing the Secrets of Your 5th House

Conflict exists between the face you believe that you present to the world and that which you actually do.  If you don’t wish to take yourself at ‘face value’, then dig deeper.

Astrology offers a way to do just that.   Like artists, astrologers seek to capture the essence of their subject – that unique signature style that sets one apart in the sea of humanity.

The best place to start is with the 5th house.  It’s here that you find your potentiality for self-expression.  Keep in mind however, that you could choose to use this energy to camouflage your real Self.

The 5th house is a place of enormous complexity.  It symbolises not only that in which you take pleasure (Venus ‘delights’ here), but also it’s home to your heart chakra.  The 5th house channels your life’s vital energy.   It also symbolises your ability to give and receive without strings.

If your 5th house energy is inhibited or blocked, you’re unable to fulfil your promise.  In this case, the ruler of your 5th house (and any planets residing there) provides clues.  Societal attitudes toward self-expression are also synthesized in the 5th house.

I have Scorpio on my 5th house cusp.  This makes Pluto (in my 2nd house in Leo) and Mars (in Virgo conjunct Venus in the 3rd) the co-rulers of the face I present to others.  As Scorpio is renouned for being guarded and suspicious, it’s little surprise that, for my own protection, I hide myself away.  Perhaps early on I learned that expression of the ‘real me’ was dangerous?  I realise that under my easy Libran smile, my teeth are always clenched.  Clearly something intense is going on under the surface.  Maybe it’s the ever-present survival concerns (Pluto in Leo in 2nd house) especially in regard to financial security?  Or maybe I’m mistrustful of life in general?

People have told me that I have a piercing gaze.  I hold eye contact with them longer than is comfortable.  What am I looking for?  My Mars in Virgo squares my Moon.  This suggests my playful Gemini Moon is seeking a way to relax and let ‘go’.

Can others see this in my face?  Can I?

La Passione di Roma & the difference between modern and classical art

William James (often referred to as the father of modern psychology) was greatly impressed with what he believed to be the distinction between classical and modern art.

In ancient Greek art, he argued, lay the quintessence of all reality. There the artist’s idea runs through all his creation allowing it to lose any amount of detail and still smile as freely as before.  A smashed nose or broken arm could never diminish a Greek statute’s rapport.  By contrast the ‘modern’ Madonna’s missing nose destroyed her very essence.

According to James, something in modern art created a dissonance, a subjective distance that was absent in ancient art.  Both pointed – as they should – to the existence of the ineffable beyond.  But for James, the distinction lay in the artist’s consciousness of it.

Part of the reason for this must lay in the difference between the modern and ancient worldviews.  Since Descartes, Western man has struggled with the connection between objective (I perceive) and subjective (I think) realities.  By contrast, the ancients embraced a more holistic –even magical – cosmology where all of creation was caught up in a seamless harmony of ‘being’.

For example, in the Hermetic and neoplatonic traditions, telestike or statue animation played a major part in religious rituals, which aimed to align the human soul with the gods so as to achieve immortality on earth.  In such rituals, both humans and statues became ‘god-possessed’, their material form becoming a vehicle for divine life.

While such traditions are for the most part no longer practiced today, they serve to remind us of a significant element of our humanity which sadly, we have forgotten.  As the American writer Ursula Leguin puts it, we live in an age where media continually undermines our capacity for recognising what she calls ‘real myths’.  Soul-less, artificially fabricated ‘glamour’ vanishes as soon as it appears.   But no reason or cynicism can destroy the power of the timeless truths as expressed through myth.   “You look at the Blond Hero (a golden haired Ben Hur clone),” she says, “really look – and he turns into a gerbil.  But you look at Apollo and he looks back at you.”

There’s little doubt that like the Greeks, our imaginations are still gripped with a fascination for living statues.  Many fine examples of theatre traditions of mime and tableaux have now migrated off stage to become part of everyday life.

Yet do we use them, as did the ancients to achieve immortality on earth?   No.  We use them as does the Italian company Fendi in their advertisement for a perfume called La Passione di Roma,  to sell ourselves a sexier tomorrow.

If he were alive today, William James would likely be disappointed.  For he truly believed that if in modernity a balance between the material world and that of imagination could be found, it would not in the bank accounts of multinational corporations, but in the Divine.

Today and Tomorrow are Seven of Cups Days

With the sun still in Gemini (ideas) and the moon moving to Taurus (desire), the tarot card for today and tomorrow is the Seven of Cups.

On a divinatory level, the Seven of Cups represents an emotionally charged situation where we’re overwhelmed with possibilities–faced not only with the challenge of choosing but also with acting realistically and responsibly in regards to our choice.

Unlike yesterday where the Moon was in Aries and our wildest dreams were possible, today and tomorrow we’ll discover that they weren’t and quite possibly, never will be.

For the Kabbalist, today’s energy is the equivalent of the seventh sephira, Netzach.

The world of Netzach is one of instincts and emotions – of images existing only in the mind of man – projected there by his most urgent desires.

The world of Netzach rightly belongs to the artist.  It’s in Netzach that our minds conceive of images, which are best realized through art.  This is because art is a purpose-built construction to contain – and to make sacred – the chaotic inner workings of our minds.

But we all aren’t artists.  Thus on a Seven of Cups day , rather than making sacred our innermost yearnings, we’re more likely to behave like kids in the candy shop with our eyes much bigger than our stomachs.

The best advice for a Seven of Cups day is to hold steady.  Take a good look at what it is you really want most and then think again.

The best choices are made when our hearts and heads are in balance – and this just isn’t one of those days.

When is Fiction Art and Why Does it Matter?

Art commands special status and support from states, corporations, and the public at large. Art is not just a matter of profits – indeed some art is extremely unprofitable.  Art is of enduring cultural esteem and concern.

Yet given its importance, surprisingly there is no accepted definition of art.

Most philosophers believe that simply being entertaining is not enough. Similarly defining ‘art’ in terms of the emotions it evokes won’t do. There is nothing valuable in the arousal of emotion for it’s own sake (unless you’re willing to agree that – for example – pornography is art). Even if we acknowledge some emotions are more valuable than others, we’d still need a yardstick by which to measure their  relative worth.  This would lead to impossible questions about morality and  religion.

Instead, some philosophers suggest that art should be defined by whether or not it promotes knowledge and understanding – most particularly self-knowledge because according to Hegel (1170-1831) it is only self-knowledge that frees us from fate (i.e. the forces of causality that binds lesser creatures to their animal nature).  This would seem a particularly appropriate theory for contemporary Westerners who are in large part,  psychologically defined.

If we accept this last thesis, then how might we ascribe value in the literary arts, where by definition (through the use of language) some knowledge is always conveyed?  Some philosophers suggest the answer lies in the fact that authors create images (character, scene, events, ideas) that  enhance understanding of the human condition.  But is this enough?

I suggest that to be considered art, fiction must go beyond simply creating images that help us reflect on our lives.  Instead to be classified as art, I believe fiction must create images that become paradigms for our lives.

Take for example Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello is not only the image, but the archetype of destructive jealousy.  He is not merely a distillation of the characteristics commonly found in jealous persons (i.e. a stereotype), but instead he taps directly into the very patterns that structure our experience of the world.

To accomplish this is a tall order.  It requires more than gimmicks, theatrics or even good writing.   It requires a style of narration that draws readers into to a character’s experience in such a way that as the result of reading, in his heart the reader knows the subjective joys and sorrows of a different way of being.  Only in this way, can fiction be said to provide us not only with understanding, but with self-understanding.

I further suggest that although a particular work of fiction falling short of this mark may be profitable and enjoyable, it is not art.  Conversely, although a particular work of fiction that does meet the mark is neither profitable nor enjoyable, it deserves the special status and support given by society to art.